Archive for January, 2015

Defining the International and Area Studies Librarian in an Era of Re-Organization

January 26th, 2015  |  Published in Uncategorized

Defining the International and Area Studies Librarian in an Era of Re-Organization
Steve Witt, University of Illinois


Like every sub-field in librarianship, area studies has undergone a steady evolution in response to changes in professional practice, political and economic change, new technologies, and shifts within broader research agendas. On the political spectrum area studies has moved from largess in funding in the combined post-war, post-Sputnik, post-cold war eras to current decreases in funding in what might be called the insipient-global-culture-economic-health-environment-security-era. On the technical end, we’ve moved from challenges in managing the physical output of the world’s publishing to aims to also support access to digital cultural output that ranges from research data to utterances. Through these changes, many institutions have opted to further consolidate the notion of area studies librarianship by developing units or administrative structures that attempt to manage international and area studies collectively while hoping to channel the strengths of area studies into support of new interdisciplinary and transnational imperatives within the academy.

From the outside, area studies librarianship has often been seen as an activity focused primarily on building specialized collections that require extensive linguistic and regional expertise to support selection and curation. This often equates to a rather opaque view of the field that emphasizes perennial problems related to sustaining the funding and staffing needed to build collections.

From within area studies librarianship, the view of the field is much more nuanced and reflects the priorities and cultures that inform the regional milieu. A Japanese studies librarian and a Middle East studies librarian by necessity do their work and must spend their time differently because of the varying infrastructure available to support collection building, availability of linguistic support, copyright laws, publishing traditions, research and teaching foci etc., etc. etc…. This variability replicates itself across regions and across institutions that support area studies collections and services.

A relatively homogenized view from the outside (the people who handle funny shaped writing systems) countered by a highly nuanced view from within, creates unique challenges in communicating realistically the role and value of international and area studies libraries and librarians in a system of academic libraries that is responding to and undergoing many changes that range from new networked models for work, budgetary stress, organizational restructuring, and shifting institutional goals for the role of libraries within the research and scholarly community.

At Illinois, the international and area studies librarians have begun to grapple with these questions in response to becoming an area studies unit and in an attempt to create a common rubric to guide our work and help us achieve our interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary ambitions. This work builds on the establishment of the International and Area Studies Library (IASL) ( in 2012 and from a similar initiative taken by colleagues to define the role of Subject Specialists ( within the library. As this process unfolds, we are looking at our history, models provided by other institutions, and opportunities to assert the enduring value of area studies knowledge and expertise within the university as it evolves amidst local and global change.

Overall, we are trying to answer two main questions:

  • Are Area Studies Librarians any different from “Subject Specialists”?
  • If Area Studies Librarians exist beyond a generic notion of language and area specialty, what binds us together as a subfield of librarianship?

Without fully answering these questions, librarians in the IASL have worked to define their work within a broad rubric that emphasizes collaborative engagement with colleagues, students, and scholars. Through this notion of engagement, the IASL attempts to support interdisciplinary research that informs and draws upon both area knowledge and transnational connections. To this aim, the IASL faculty teaches and promotes knowledge related to the societies, cultures, and intellectual output of the countries and regions supported by its expert services and research collections. A core service initiative of the IASL is to expand teaching opportunities beyond the traditional classroom setting by drawing upon the expertise of the librarians to make international and area studies resources accessible, engaging, and relevant to the campus’ research, teaching, and engagement efforts. These activities also support key campus research and teaching missions to promote cultural and international understanding while engaging in dialogue focused on tolerance and diversity within a pluralistic society. The new Chai Wai lecture series is one example of this (

In addition to the broad domains of activity and competence that all UIUC’s subject librarians build into their positions descriptions (such as scholarly communication, publishing and teaching and learning), a few highlight the special efforts needed by area studies librarians, including

ENGAGEMENT – Serve as a liaison to and active member of the area studies faculty on campus to collaborate in research and teaching activities that focuses on area studies and allied interdisciplinary fields.

COLLECTION DEVELOPMENT – Develop and manage unique and distinctive collections that support both local — institutional needs, while also contributing to the “national” area studies collection that serves scholars and researchers in institutions throughout the US and world.

FIELDWORK – Conduct regular fieldwork within the regions of expertise to facilitate collection building, developing scholarly networks, and maintaining expertise in the publishing, research, and cultural trends within the region.

TECHNICAL SERVICES – Stay abreast of trends in authority control, transliteration, and cataloging standards that impact access and discovery of foreign language and non-Roman materials. Collaborate with staff in library technical services departments to ensure access to scholarly resources and communicate changes in publishing, access, and distribution that impacts acquisitions and cataloging activities.

OUTREACH TO CONSTITUENCIES BEYOND UIUC – Participate in programs that reach out to groups beyond UIUC to fulfill special program requirements (e.g. Title VI) as part of the library’s collaboration with regional centers as well as with local community groups.

This broad definition of area studies librarianship at Illinois is still under construction and under active debate among the IASL librarians. As we work to further articulate this aspirational description of our work in international and area studies, we anticipate many questions.

Looking at our work collectively, however, exposes several binding features. For example, international and area studies librarians consciously contribute to what amounts to a collective area studies collection that enables both broad access to materials and expertise in a manner that does not exist in other disciplines and subject areas. Whether formal or in-formal, we have created an intricate system of cooperative collection building. Also, our engagement with colleagues, faculty, and students as members of both a library faculty and the field we serve distinguishes our ability to work collaboratively across institutions and regions to promote international and area studies as an epistemology to be used in approaching multiple domains of knowledge. This theoretical underpinning of our work rests in a belief that our services, collections, and research activities contribute to our professional work as librarians, our scholarly discipline, and the academic community as a whole. Is this enough to create the conditions for a collective approach to access and services and enable the development of service models that operate at the scale of our cooperative collecting ambitions?

As discussions on the “definition” of the international and area studies librarian continues at Illinois, we look forward to continued debate and contributions to the conversation from other institutions. Coming to a shared understanding of our work and its contributions to society will only enable further collaboration and new forms of services that can take better advantage of the unique and distributed nature of our expertise and collections.